The Jewish Guido

Mazel!

Mazel!

If the guys I went to school with were movie characters they would be Jordan Belfort of Wolf of Wall Street and Irving Rosenfeld of American Hustle.  Two smart, charismatic and fast-talking Jewish guys from Queens, NY with morally questionable values, especially where money is concerned.  A stereotype, you say?  Uh, not when you consider how many Jewish male lead characters there have ever been in big major studio movies aside from Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.  And besides — what major film studio heroes aren’t a bit, um…iconic.  In fact, those of us who are or could have been them prefer the word iconic.  Especially if it means – we’re the LEAD!

The truth is – you gotta start somewhere.

Martin Scorsese has spent half of his career immortalizing similar types of New York Italian guys in the movies but they are usually in the more tough talking form of Manhattan street thugs in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas – men who were certainly charismatic and street-wise but, on the whole, a lot tougher and muscular.  Plus, they could at least duck into Church for confession when things got dicey rather than eat themselves up from the inside out over anxiety.

Those kind of leading men tend to bleed into the aforementioned characters in our current crop of awards contenders.  Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wife-beater clad muscle head in Don Jon; Bradley Cooper’s co-lead detective Richie DiMaso in American Hustle; or even anti-hero Pat Solitano in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook.  Not to mention all the leads in The Godfather and Moonstruck.

There's gotta be an award out there for these curlers...

There’s gotta be an award out there for these curlers…

Which means if you put all the current Italian and Semitic boys from the boroughs together – which often happens in real life, not to mention in my own personal one – they comprise what I think of as a new ethnic stereotype I and my many childhood compadres from Queens have long awaited to be included on in film: The Jewish Guido.

(Note: See I can say that because I am one of them…well, sort of).

Who are we?  We are everything and more of what the major Hollywood studios think of as colorful and morally questionable.  No, we are not a Woody Allen character or Roberto Benigni from Life Is Beautiful.

Nope, not this Guido

Nope, not this Guido

We are a much more down and dirty, messy type of working/middle class person – a little crass, not afraid to speak our minds and, to put it bluntly: pretty good in bed – which is why we’re often a romantic lead who gets the girl at some point even if we can’t keep her.  You might not want to have us at a fancy dinner party or as your permanent spouse (Note: the latter is still in flux and debatable) but you most certainly want to include us if you aspire to learn how to rise up in the ranks of life or enjoy some unbridled, down and dirty fun.  In short, we have dreams and we’re not afraid to go for them in quite unorthodox and entertaining ways – even if there are overwhelming odds of failure or the likelihood that we will not have the best decorating sense once we achieve those dreams and have the cash to acquire whatever nouveau riche items you or we may crave.  Our reasoning:  if we don’t take that chance we’ll be stuck in Queens forever and, as we all know, with the right amount of money we can hire all the Waspy female decorators we want with taste and eventually charm them into at least having an affair with us after they’re done hanging the drapes.

Okay, so I may have exaggerated just a little bit.  But so are our personas.

This all started several weeks ago when I found myself thoroughly enjoying both    WoWS and AH while many of my friends insisted they reeked of disappointment, misguided storytelling and just plain unsympathetic, despicable characters.  Really?  I hadn’t noticed.  Isn’t this sort of the scrappy, exaggerated way Waspy movie characters behave, albeit with less money and more curse words?  No, claimed my Jewish guy friends from upstate New York, southern California and the Midwest.  They’re just awful people in uninvolving movies.   And those Waspy characters you are referring to are usually the villains, not the hero.

Did someone say Wasp?

Did someone say Wasp?

Well, okay.  Still, there is something to be said for seeing a version of you onscreen, even if it is a slightly unpleasant one.  If there is enough humanity and humor in the characterization you can get away with a lot of political incorrectness.  Enough elements of truth can counterbalance harsh generalities about the neighborhood or plot holes that you can drive a Miata through.  In addition, if you give these guys a little bit more of the macho power you craved when you were younger, or even last week, the fantasy is complete.  At least for some of us.

I can’t say I’m particularly proud of two Jewish guys from Queens being portrayed as people who swindled others out of money in order to lift themselves out of the doldrums of their own lower/middle class existences (Note: though if I had a choice I’d take the fictionalized Rosenfeld in American Hustle, who mostly stole from rich bad guys and didn’t kill people or cause them to kill themselves).  But now that Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss are no longer leading men and only act sporadically, not to mention the total lack of movie roles for Steve Guttenberg in the last 20 years, you can’t blame me for binging a little on these types of recent and very public inroads. (Note: Yes there is still Jessie Eisenberg, born in Queens and raised in New Jersey – but c’mon, there is just nothing boroughs about him or any of his characters).

I made a movie with Barbra.. does that count?

I made a movie with Barbra.. does that count?

My notesfromachair co-hort Holly Van Buren suggested to me that the emergence of the Jewish Guido might have something to do with our current economic climate and the fantasy of the everyday working class man with the accent becoming victorious.  Not a bad thought.  It’s the boroughs way and certainly is a fine counterpoint to the seemingly omnipotent top 1%.  I mean, it takes a little bit of the crude and in your face in order to cut through all of that upper crust steeliness, right?

Plus, both Wolf and Hustle are period pieces from the seventies and eighties.  Clearly, enough time has passed where rather than championing a Gordon Gekko kind of financial wizard we can indulge in a more in-your-face punk upstart who beats the elite at their own game by any means necessary using the logic gleaned from a tougher life lived.

Still, there seems an even bigger factor – time.  American society may have grown more polarized these days but certainly its people have overall become far less homogenized.  There is ethnicity everywhere – so much so that is unusual for a day to go by on Fox News or right wing radio where the previously dominant White Male patriarchy, particularly in the south and Midwest, don’t wax nostalgic about the good old days and whine about losing their grip on power and the social and moral traditions (Note: one questions what they consider those were) that once made our Great Country great. This and the fact that same country, which less than two centuries ago legally enslaved all of its African American citizens in more than half of its states, has for the last six years had its first African American president presiding over everyone.

Yep.. and still the President.

Yep.. and still the President.

Those factors of time and ethnicity might also be responsible for the emergence of two other crossover major studio films about the African American community this year – 12 Years A Slave and Lee Daniel’s The Butler.  It is certainly no coincidence that as directors and other artists emerge in a position of power – like Steve McQueen and Mr. Daniels – the more chances there are of movies that reflect the history and/or experiences of their particular ethnic groups.  (Note:  Not that they can’t do anything else – both men have worked on “white” films).  It is also no accident that both of these directors have also earned money and acclaim in their recent past that have enabled them to do larger and more mainstream films with African American characters in the leads.  This is just the way it goes as long you can produce massive income with your often larger than life product.  Decades before Spike Lee had a certain degree of power among the major studios until his movies began underperforming at the box-office and the cache he was given by the powers-that-be to make his type of movies began to shrink. (Note: Mr. Lee also came of age at a time where there were far less non-white leads in films than there are today, making his road somewhat tougher).

Interestingly enough, all four aforementioned major films this year – Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’ The Butler – are also historical pieces that take place far and very much farther into the past.   There could simply be a certain drama to looking at events from a backwards lens.  Though surely it also provides a special kind of safety that gives the Hollywood community and its studio system a specific type of perfect cover.

the current state of Hollywood

the current state of Hollywood

Which all begs the question – why with all of the many, many male Jewish writers and directors working in the movie industry over the decades – not to mention that the studios themselves were founded by a large group of New York Jewish salesmen – have there statistically been such a lack of Jewish male characters as major studio leads on the big screen. I mean, if the African-American model holds, shouldn’t it follow that….?

Well, I have no provable idea.  But even in accounting for time and some evolution of thought, it is still worth noting that American Hustle’s David O. Russell is half-Jewish while Wolf of Wall Street’s Scorsese is very famously Italian.  So, at least in terms of the Jewish Guido, well — you do the math.

Or, to put my take on the whole thing another way, here is what Woody Allen’s quintessentially non-Guido/very Jewish character of Alvy Singer said when he first met his very ethnic-looking first wife Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) in the 1977 classic, Annie Hall:

Woody-Allen-and-Carol-Kane-620x310

Alvy: You, you, you’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings…and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper…stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself

Allison: No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.

Alvy:  Right, I’m a bigot, I know, but for the left.

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I have no idea…

With all the know-it-alls in the world, it might be refreshing to once in a while hear someone publicly say, “I have no idea.”  That is, instead of yourself when you’re at some personal or professional impasse.

This is quite different than you or someone else stating it in the plural:  “I have no ideas.”   Meaning, you are convinced you are unproductive, uncreative or on the whole not very smart compared to all of the other “geniuses” working in the entertainment business today, or even yesterday (we’ll get to the past later).

Isn’t that something?  Add just the letter “s” and you totally change the meaning from potentially a good, honest admission of not knowing to a bad, self-destructive and totally fictional one of stupidity and personal self-flagellation.  Clever to state it this way, huh?  Well, that was my idea.

Though I obviously won’t be a network comedy writer any time soon, I did once have the idea that I could be and started my professional writing career in Hollywood (after writing one sensitive dramatic screenplay that got me the attention of a few agents and nothing more). I was writing spec episodes of “Cheers,” “Kate and Allie,” “The Tortellis” and “The Golden Girls.”  I don’t really know why.  But I guess because nothing was happening and I figured, hey, I’m a funny guy, maybe this is what I should really be doing rather than trying to inflict my outdated POV on the powers-that-be, whoever they are.  Anyway, I got a writing partner for the big jokes, had lots of pitch/idea meetings with real shows and eventually was actually sort of promised a writing assignment for an episode of Lucille Ball’s short-lived sitcom comeback “Life With Lucy”.  But the studio and the audience had other ideas, the most prominent of which was the admission of having no idea why that show was on the air in the first place.  Lucy’s comeback was quickly cancelled after several episodes and I lost my patience trying to break into an insanity I clearly didn’t have the stomach, or perhaps the right ability for (I mean, Lucy got cancelled!).

Oy.

Then I had yet another idea that it might be best for me to follow my heart and write the sensitive dramas I had always wanted to write in the first place despite it being the age of either “Die Hard” and/or “The Cosby Show.”  A good idea?  A bad idea?  Well, who was I to ask at the time since I didn’t seem to be having anything but the latter?  However, it turned out to be not just good but an excellent decision, because I would very soon get yet another idea for a script based on my very dysfunctional and sort of sad childhood that I had the notion (neé idea) would at least prove to people (and perhaps myself) that I could, indeed write.  That turned into the best idea yet.  It became not only my first huge sale but a feature film with a bunch of big names at the time and opened the many doors for listeners who now wanted me to talk about past, present and future ideas.   Listeners I never dreamed I would talk to in this or any other lifetime.  I mean, I had no idea….

I bring this up now because it’s the beginning of a new semester for me as a writing professor and I find myself in the privileged seat of listening to countless ideas from many, many young people who, with varying degrees of confidence, are volunteering (or being forced through requirements of a class) to share ideas of their own.   Imagine – you listen and listen in a class and finally there comes the point where you are required to put up or shut up.  Scary?  Abso(fuckin)lutely.  But it shouldn’t be.  You have to expose a bit of yourself or your thought process or your point of view and, whether you like it or not, have to go with your own original idea not only in class but in life – that is if you really want to get anywhere worth going.

Roughly the layout of my classroom...

Saying “I have no ideas” is not an option.  In fact, it’s the one thing that’s frowned upon in my classes and workshops because it’s a lie.  I mean, everyone has an idea.  And many more than one.  The key is – do you have the courage to state it?? (Note: It’s the same type of courage it takes to honestly answer a question with: “I have no idea” because it at least puts you on the path to figuring something out).

An idea is a seedling, a notion or a thought.  It can be inspiring, confusing, derivative, offensive or even just plain odd.  But, and this is the biggie, is only an idea.  If you look at the dictionary definition of the word, as I love to do in times like these, you will see that an IDEA is defined as:

Meaning, who the heck knows what is going to happen with it.  It’s at its core just a notion that has come into existence as a by-product of using your brain.  And unless you are actually brain dead (which means you couldn’t walk, talk, much less take a class of any kind), you have probably thousands of ideas in any given day.

I’m amazed at how creative, unusual or just plain cool even the oddest of my students’ ideas are or could be, even when they are mere thoughts, conceptions or lead balloons that don’t seem to be going over with anyone else.  That’s because I know in my heart of hearts, and through decades of more than a few broken hearts of my own, that today’s lead balloon can easily become tomorrow’s gold standard.  Or could lead us to the road for one.    The question is, how do you convince students (or adults) or the man on the street of this?  And, as one gets older, how do you remember this lesson each time you read any part of your own new or old work?  Or engage in general in life?

The answer, as it often is, is to go back to the truth – in this case,  your (the) definition.  An idea is a thought.  How can it be bad in itself?  And since thoughts are produced by your mind ad infinitum, that’s like saying that one of your sneezes is bad.  How do you quantify a good sneeze? (Doctors, please don’t write in).  Or smile?  Or, as long as we’re choosing random bodily functions, an orgasm?  Re the latter, “My worst one was right on the money,” as Woody Allen once so wisely said.  Amen.

I try to remember this when talking to the students and working on my own ideas.  I also try to remember that it’s not entirely bad, when faced with a new challenge of how to execute one of my or their many thoughts, to state, “I have no idea.” Actually, it’s pretty liberating.  Because if you have no idea then anything you say can’t be mistaken for one and thus absolves you from stupidity, inferiority or a factory of dumb thoughts.  It does, however, open the door to explore something or a series of things that might lead to one or two notions worth listening to.   Contrary to what I was like in my younger years, I try to say this “I have no idea” thing at least once or twice a week, and sometimes more often than that when I’m teaching.  It’s amazing how many doors it opens up – how many random thoughts young (and even older) people can have when you admit to them you are as confused as they might be or feel they are (you mean I’m not the only one?).  It also builds potential bridges because more than a few people imagine that if someone in a position of authority (or friendship) doesn’t know, maybe that one tiny thing they suddenly (or earlier) thought to say might not be so bad either.

(Note: I have to confess that each time I watch the news these days, I long to have at least one person in public life say the “I have no idea” thing and invite others to brainstorm with them).

Martin Scorsese, who has spent a 50-year career in movies, and has had and continues to have an endless supply of ideas, comes to mind right now.

Drinking game alert!

I watched “Hugo” for the second time and did a bit of a favorable turnaround on the film.  On first view I almost gave up on his ideas because the set up of the film was so long.  But on second view, knowing the set up, I was excited about all the ideas I knew were to come because, bottom line, “Hugo” is a film about a forgotten pioneering artist who had endless ideas in uncharted territory of a then very new art – moviemaking. Riffing on the true story of Georges Méliès – and in a fictional world unlike/like our own where a pioneering master of early films had his work destroyed through age, money and lack of appreciation by the business people – “Hugo” wants to shout at the world that ideas and the people who are bold enough to create them are to be valued when everyone has turned their back on anything new in favor of just living an unimaginative life.  Actually, more than valued.  Treasured.  And preserved.

But at one time each idea Méliès, the real or fictional one, had was a notion, a thought, a concept.  Much in the same way as one of our own in 2012.

I suspect it’s because Scorsese is a veteran “idea” and “I have no idea” man of storytelling that he has managed this long a career.  He knows you have to develop countless ideas (with more writers than you can shake a stick at, not that I recommend stick shaking towards my brethren or myself) than movies they make (but usually it’s a 1-10 ratio).  Mr. Scorsese – a name that usually evokes genuflection in film and TV classes – is willing to jump off the net.  And see where it all goes, knowing full well it might, in all reality, go nowhere.  But knowing also that it might, just very might, be his next great, or at least, new, or cool, idea.  As they say in life and in old Hollywood adages:  “You learn from the best.”

Hidden Costs

“Everybody has to pay the piper,”  “You don’t get something for nothing” and “No one gets off scott free.”  These are only three of the annoying sayings that get invoked over and over again by my family and have become the punch line to many of the sad, sick Larry David moments of karmic payback that seem to dog our existence.  They also serve to insure that none of us will ever get too complacent if any good fortune comes our way because it will inevitably cost us more than we will possibly know.

I used to think this was just a neurotic Jewish thing – Woody Allen’s version of “the horrible and the miserable” from “Annie Hall” where he tells his girlfriend Annie we should be happy we’re “miserable” because we could be in that small class of people who have “horrible” lives due to some handicap, awful crime, or genocidal atrocity. Yes, this was before political correctness vis-à-vis the physically and emotionally challenged and anti-depressants but, anyway, you get the point.  We (my family, I mean) are all inevitably doomed.

This all came to bear this week when my partner and I became what I always feared – people who buy washer-dryers and get excited about it and then get screwed by the system we should have been watching out for.  My feeling is that it probably served me right for getting gleeful about appliances in the first place.  How did this happen?  When did I become my Mother? Grandmother?  Aunt?  God knows, my Dad didn’t care about this stuff – in fact, when he and my mother got divorced he used to buy cheap socks and throw them out so he didn’t have to do laundry.  Sorry, Dad.  It’s true.

As for my partner, myself and our washing machine (no, that’s not a new French film), our non-musical sheer glee at this sleek new toy was quickly replaced with anger, disgust and then murderous rage once we began the purchase of those gleaming new fangled “bargains” and soon found out that those three of the most annoying sayings in the world that have gotten invoked by members of my family for decades (two of which I think I actually started. Oops.  © Rick Perry) are actually true.

Yes, I am here to report that the washer-dryer was expensive but on a major sale yet after the two year service agreement, delivery charge, gas hookup, tax and cart away fee for the other appliance from 1972, the sale price was actually 33% more than advertised and definitely above the sticker price were the whole thing not on sale at all.

Hidden costs or a sign of the times? Be more mechanical and hook up your own damn machine and, while we’re at it, cart it away, Mr. Lazy Bones, you say?  Uh, I’d wait if I were you.   Fifteen minutes after the delivery man left, the machine gushed water all over the laundry room, ruined the flooring, rendered the back door impossible to open because the wood floor swelled and, insult to hidden cost, the company two weeks later that sold us this lemon has not made good on its promise to compensate for losses despite me spending the equivalent of two 12-15 hour days harassing them in a way that I’m sure you, kind readers, could imagine only I, the Chair, could do.

An isolated instance?  This happens to everyone? Grow the eff up?  Gosh, I hope not.  But maybe. Perhaps as Charles Barkley noted last week on “Saturday Night Live” is this is simply a WPP?

Click here to watch the sketch

 

Actually, I think it’s a national (international?) trend.

Sunday night we go to see “Hugo” at a cool theatre in Hollywood where they charge $1 extra for movie tickets because it’s a flagship theatre.  I’m not a 3-D fanatic but I get the fascination and, after all, it’s Scorsese and it’ll be worth it to see it under optimum conditions.   And it’s a Sunday night. And it’s been playing for a while, so no line.  We go up to the box-office.  Cool.  I’m excited.  That’ll be — $39.50?  Huh?  No, how can that be?  For two tickets?  Well, it’s a 3-D show.  But….how much….Well, we charge $3.50 a ticket for the 3-D glasses.  Huh?  That’s our policy.

The industry's torture device

FINE.  We see the film.  I hate those freakin’ glasses.  It’s like having a small television resting on your nose, especially when you’re already wearing your own eyeglasses.  And the movie – it’s beautiful to look at, imaginative but maybe my inner child was asleep during the first hour due to the extra $3.50 apiece because, well…okay, subject of another discussion.  Still, it’ Scorsese, right?  Until we leave the movie theatre and there’s a big basket and an usher with a sign that tells us you need to RETURN the 3-D glasses you just paid $3.50 apiece for.  So — the extra $7 was a rental fee?

Tick Tock

I now hate Scorsese and precocious French children even if they are orphans.  But of course, that will inevitably cost me, too.  Perhaps in new, politically correct French readers or maybe in ways the universe has not yet decided but is currently planning in its quest to level the playing field and make us all pay the inevitable piper.  (It’s those European socialist ideas, courtesy of  Mitt  Obama, I tell ya!) Bottom line…it won’t be pretty.

All this talk got me thinking about other hidden costs.  Actually, the hidden costs of  everything.  Because truly, everything costs something even if it’s free.  You can’t ever get back the two hours (three if you count traveling time) you lose when you go to a bad movie.  Or all the money and lost time you’ve spent on counseling if you’re still in a bad relationship and dead-end job and do nothing about it.  And you might have more valuably spent your time reading Proust’s “Remembrance Of Things Past,” Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or even watching the entire series of “The Wire”  (the show that everyone claims to be the best written show on television and which I haven’t yet sat through – though I have had an astrology reading) than spending 4, 6 or even 8 years of college if you can’t get a job in you field and are saddled with student loan or personal debt you’ll never pay back.

Except –

  1. What if the movie was great, even life-changing?  Then those 2-3 hours might be among the best of your life.
  2. What if those counseling sessions were the only thing that has gotten you to make major changes in your world that have given your life unexpected meaning, joy and balance?
  3. Perhaps those 4, 6 or even 8 years of college taught you to think in a way you would have never dreamed possible and spurred you on to not only a job in your field but a creative vocation in life that has given you the kind of creative (and even financial) gratification that only a handful of people ever manage to get a fraction of after endless decade upon decade of existence?

I bring this up because the first 3 negative results and the last 3 positive results have all happened to me in my very short life so far.

Hidden costs?  Always.  Look out for them.  Beware of the charlatans.  And – watch your back  (Especially at a Sears sale).  But there’s another saying my family lives by, even though we don’t joke about it – “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”  Take a risk.  Try it.  Jump in.  There’s a ying and yang to the world.  No one gets off scott free.  (I certainly don’t – and continue not to).  But if you play it right, the piper can very much be worth paying.  Even at, perish the thought, far above the full retail price.